Still Paying Attention Ten Years Later:
                    A Bakhtinian Reading of the
                    National Information Infrastructure Initiative
                    Agenda for Action

In Fundable Knowledge, A.D. Van Nostrand examined policy documents from the military Research and Development community (pgs. 6-12). He affirmed that these documents, though generic, constitute a literature of needs and claims.


Using Bakhtin to read the Agenda has some rewards for computers and writing specialists. The primary advantage when using Bakhtin is that it allows for pluralistic reading and thinking about the technology policy and about policy in general. Readers can view the text with both macro and micro lenses. The micro lens of unitary language focuses on lexical details of connotations and denotations. The macro lens of external persuasion focuses on the socio-ideological nature of language. A Bakhtinian reading encompasses the minute details of the utterance and the broad scope of technological assumptions. A Bakhtinian rhetorical reading explores the notion of policy that impacts the social construction of meaning and our work as writing instructors. In Fundable Knowledge, A.D. Van Nostrand examined policy documents from the military Research and Development community (pgs. 6-12). He affirmed that these documents, though generic, constitute a literature of needs and claims. Rhetorical analysis revealed how the texts enable transactions and produce knowledge: “...[S]uch analysis can reveal the interplay of text and context,” according to Van Nostrand (xv). Critical awareness of documents such as the Agenda can bolster techno-pedagogy and the theory-to-practice arc.   

The United States government is the largest producer of internal and external text nationally. Despite being the world’s largest producer of text, scholars rarely examine these texts’ rhetorical functions. Genre studies emphasized the socially-constructed nature of genre in the works of Charles Bazerman and James Paradis (1997), A.D. Van Nostrand (1997), Caroline Miller (1984)  and Wayne Booth (1982). The genre of public policy constructs meaning and exerts agency in the same way as educational institutions, family, neighborhoods, business and the media. The genre of policy exerts an ideological power to influence technology, funding, and public perception—and its textual power has been neglected. Government’s textual practices and functions remain invisible to those who implement the mandate-like objectives. Yet, policymakers influence the administrators of colleges and universities and those in the field of composition and rhetoric who construct social knowledge in a style of monoglossia and authority.

The Agenda announces itself as a document that heralds “dramatic changes.” Following the Agenda’s advice, readers’ lives will be enhanced by technology that directly involves education: “schools,” “teachers,” “courses,” “literature,” “science,” and “libraries” (p. 7). We are told these changes will benefit the American people” (p. 8). To resist these changes equates with being undemocratic. For those of us who teach or are encouraged to teach computer technology along with writing technology, these documents might influence our daily intellectual life, even if we assume unfettered agency in our work. The documents can be seen as simultaneously protean and fixed, taking on many societal roles as needed. Specifically, this article applies Bakhtin’s concepts of the internally persuasive versus the authoritative, heteroglossia, reaccentuation, centrifugal and centripetal forces, unitary language, dialogism, and double-voicedness to the genre of the government initiative: the NII. This genre rarely exhibits the nuance and complexity of literary works, or the immediacy of workplace documents.  The article suggests that the incorporation of technology in the writing classroom is constructed in part by public initiatives such as NII and the Agenda, and not solely as a result of decision-making at the post-secondary level by local instructors, students, and stakeholders. Extra-institutional forces, such as public policy initiatives, often operate invisibly to those directly affected by the documents. In fact, the Agenda calls for action to “…help educate and train our people [Americans] so that they are prepared not only to contribute to the further growth of the NII, but also to understand and enjoy fully the services and capabilities that it will make available” (p. 8). The Agenda's message seems to imply that the public is not prepared to contribute to or fully enjoy technology. The Agenda suggests to readers that these capabilities and personal needs are inexorable because the U.S. private sector has already invested in technology (p. 8). Like previous documents from the genre of public policy, reader-citizens are expected to participate. The power of the genre of the public initiative, act, or bill can be compared to the social and curricular impact of the GI Bills and Morrill Land Grant Act on education.

The GI Bill was constructed to serve the anticipation of negative economic consequences due to returning veterans after WWI and WWII. The American GI Bill was modeled on the WW I British format created to address the effects of demobilization and economic fluctuations. In The GI Bill: A Breakthrough in Educational and Social Policy (1975), Theodore R. Mosch concludes that economic stability was best served by educational focus of the GI Bills: “Of all the provisions of the GI Bills, those concerning education were, according to many, the most significant” (p. 3). The advent of NII, an initiative in technology proficiency in society and education, sought to shape the public expectations for technology instruction. Just as the Morrill Land Grant and GI Bill linked educational directives to democracy, the NII and the Agenda linked educational (and other) current technology directives to democracy.

Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (1979) and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1989)  focused on novelistic and literary readings. In my retrospective webbed article, I apply Bakhtin to reveal the authoritative stance of public policy documents. The novel and the genre of public policy can be contrasted in that the authors of public policy have been granted authority by the public they represent. Those publics speak collectively through their political representatives. Their stake in the fiction of public policy is, for the most part, more tangible than readers’ investment in the novel. The novel and the genre of public policy can be compared, in theory, because both suggest, inspire or stimulate the imagination and often action. Thought-provoking novels (Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac) inspired readers as powerfully as does public policy. The GI Bill has inspired generations towards personal goals. Aesthetics, too, play a role in novels as they reshape, nuance, and reexamine human notions of what constitutes beauty or “the good” in the classical Hellenic sense. Public policy presupposes what is best, and most likely to produce beautiful results in society. Instructors, students, and administrators need to question what extent their agency in decision-making is shaped by the rhetoric of the texts of the government-as-social constructor of curricula. This Bakhtinian retrospective reading of the Agenda (10-year retrospective of C. Selfe’s 1999 Technology and Literacy) engages computers and writing readers to re-examine the public policy (Agenda and Spellings) as an example of a socially and politically motivated discourse that is meant to influence legislative members, community stakeholders, educators, and instructors and students in the composition classroom.